Leadership & Productivity

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How to conquer the (business) world when you’re shy

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As a child, Alan Donegan desperately wanted to fit in, but was bullied horribly instead. But it set the PopUp Business School co-founder on the path to becoming a successful entrepreneur…

When I was nine years old I was shy, nervous and overweight. I wore glasses and desperately wanted to fit in at school. One break time, a swarm of kids encircled me and started teasing me.

One kid said: “I am starting the ‘I hate Alan Donegan’ Club; who wants to join?” – all the other children put their hands up and then ran off laughing. I stood there in the middle of an empty playground, destroyed.

All I wanted was to fit in and be part of the gang. I’d have probably joined the ‘I hate Alan Donegan’ Club if they’d let me in. In fact, for some time, I believed in its central cause – childhood was often a difficult time. As the years have passed, I have come to realise that fitting in and following the herd leads to nowhere exceptional. If you want the same results as everyone else, then copy them. But if you want to really make an impact then start to do things differently.

Business leaders don’t do average

We know what normal looks like in the UK, there’s a lot of data on the subject. The average man earns £31k a year, the average woman £25k a year and they will have 1.9 kids. Their shopping basket contains a two-pint carton of semi-skimmed milk, pre-packed sliced ham, unsweetened breakfast cereal, bacon and a bar of milk chocolate etc.

None of us are seeking average. We don’t want an average physique, finances, business or family life. But that’s exactly what we’ll get if we copy everyone else.

That painful experience at school has driven me to want to stand out from the crowd, do things differently and question everything, and this has brought me great success. My first breakthrough came when I began public speaking.

Every presentation I heard started the same way: “My name is X, I have worked for X company for X years and I am here today to talk to you about X.”

The road to my own success

So I started to think; what if I did the opposite to everyone else? What if I put my name at the end of the presentation and started with the most important thing first? I started to try it at the public speaking organisation Toastmasters and the results were phenomenal. I started to win speaking competitions, get compliments about my skills and be hired as a professional speaker.

I couldn’t believe it. The simple act of doing the opposite of everyone else made me stand out and in such a positive way. I started to tell everyone what I was doing. ‘Look, I am breaking the rules and doing the opposite, and can you see the results?’ I started to teach what I had learnt.

The art of “doing things differently”

This ended up with me writing a presentation skills course, selling it to Microsoft and running it there for 10 years, helping their staff to have more presence and impact. Doing the opposite of everyone else led to one of my biggest successes.

At PopUp Business School, we have spent the last eight years doing things differently. We tell people there isn’t just one way to start a company, there are many. Nearly every start-up support provider out there recommends writing a business plan and taking out a loan to start – we tell them not to as it will just put off many from actually starting-up.

Last year, PopUp helped 3000 people across the globe in five countries start businesses. By challenging the norm and thinking about how to do things differently, we have created a company that has had a dramatic, positive impact.

If you want the same results as everyone else in your business then copy everyone else. If you want different results in your business, you need to do things differently

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